Pressroom  >  Press Releases  >  Myanmar’s peace process stuck on lack of resource governance reforms, but federal decentralization provides a path forward

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Kevin Woods
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For Immediate Release | Washington, DC and Yangon, Myanmar

Myanmar’s peace process has been effectively stalled, with little meaningful progress reported from negotiations between the Union Government of Myanmar (UGoM) and ethnic armed organizations (EAOs) who are party to the peace process.

Central to this impasse is a fundamental disagreement on how to achieve federal decentralization and good governance of the country’s abundant natural resources, including minerals, gems, timber, and oil and gas.

A new analysis from Forest Trends, released today, marks the first attempt to systematically examine land and natural resource governance within the peace process, record the various positions held by different stakeholders, and present opportunities for environmental peacebuilding.

The report, Natural Resource Governance Reform and the Peace Process in Myanmar, concludes that land and resource ownership and political decentralization issues anchor the central demands of ethnic stakeholders in the peace process. But progress is blocked by the 2008 Constitution and UGoM laws and policies.

It will be difficult to reconcile the gap between what the country’s legal documents allow and what ethnic stakeholders demand. The current stalemate is exacerbated by unequitable power structures and opaque decision-making within the national peace process itself: Myanmar’s military has hampered meaningful discussion and adoption of reform measures and Union Accord peace principles that meet EAO demands.

“It is deeply concerning that Myanmar’s peace process is not yet addressing the governance of natural resources in a meaningful way,” says Kevin Woods, Senior Policy Analyst at Forest Trends and author of the report.

“Resource governance decentralization framed within political federalism could help reboot the country’s peace process. It is the best way to ensure sustainable peace – and to rebuild levels of trust between ethnic stakeholders and the UGoM in peace building.”[1]

The last two Union peace conferences in 2017 and 2018, billed as pathways to end the Myanmar’s decades-long internal armed conflicts, have resulted in little meaningful progress. Increased intensity in fighting against non-signatory EAOs in the north, and the ethnic armed political organization the Karen National Union (KNU) temporarily withdrawing from formal negotiations, has subsequently further diminished faith in the peace process.

Natural resources and armed conflict in Myanmar

Historically, more than half of ceasefires signed in conflict states collapse within their first five years. Previous Forest Trends research found that in resource-rich countries, peace negotiations often fail to pay proper attention to resource governance reform, even when tensions over the rights and management over resources are the reason for conflict in the first place.

Bilateral ceasefires between EAOs and the UGoM, as well as the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) signed by ten EAOs since 2015, have included minimal discussion of resource governance issues. The few NCA provisions that support coordination on land and resource management have been routinely ignored by UGoM, multilateral and bilateral donor programs, as well as international conservation programs, at times serving to undermine peace and security.

Meanwhile, fighting over Myanmar’s valuable resources and the revenues they generate prolong violence, loss of livelihoods, and other human rights abuses, the brunt of which is largely felt by ethnic minority communities. Ongoing exploitation by the country’s different armed actors – the Tatmadaw, paramilitaries, and EAOs – continues to endanger prospects for sustainable peace.

“Myanmar should not reboot its resource economy without addressing the grievances that catalyzed armed conflict in the first place, and putting a solid foundation of natural resource governance frameworks into place first,” added Woods.

Stakeholders’ positions on resource governance

Forest Trends’ analysis reveals that:

  1. EAOs and ethnic civil society organizations are united in their demands for federal decentralization, customary land and resource ownership rights, and self-determination. Ethnic leaders argue that political federalism would enable ethnic minority populations to have a greater say in their own region’s development – especially regarding the governance and management of land and natural resources.
  2. While the ratified peace principles in the future Union Accord so far includes twelve principles directly related to land, few support decentralization of land governance, and their interpretation can be ambiguous.Principles specific to the governance and management of natural resources so far have not been discussed within the national peace process.
  3. Despite movement towards democratic political and economic reforms, the UGoM continues to attempt to formalize central control of land and natural resources. The Tatmadaw (military), which holds the most power in the peace negotiations process including what topics are discussed, has blocked debates and any suggested peace principles that support the decentralization of natural resources within political federalism.

Reconciling these positions will not be easy, given the competing interests at stake.

A way forward

The window between the signing of bilateral ceasefires with 15 EAOs since 2012 and the NCA with 10 EAOs since 2015, but before consensus on a comprehensive political system is reached, offers important opportunities to build political will, and capacity for, natural resource governance reform.

“Such reform would be necessary to lay that critical foundation for peace, leading to sustainable and equitable economic growth in the country. Meeting ethnic stakeholders’ demands would help to alleviate the drivers of conflict. Local and regional ‘constituencies for change’ can be a significant lever of pressure for resource federalism, both within the formal peace process structures and outside of it,” notes Kerstin Canby, Director of Forest Trends’ Forest Policy, Trade, and Finance Program.

International environmental good governance mechanisms already operating in Myanmar can help build the necessary capacity for the implementation of reform measures. With great potential to steer and strengthen governance and its decentralization, these mechanisms will need to be integrated into the peace process – which has not happened yet. In several cases, in particular international biodiversity conservation programs, have even undermined peace and security in ethnic conflict territories.

“The national peace process must explore options to address ethnic demands for land and resource governance federal decentralization,” concluded Canby. “Natural resource governance reforms can support these aims. Without them, peace will be elusive, with resources and their benefits squandered away from corruption and thus lost to the citizens of Myanmar, and local populations increasingly marginalized from their lands and resource-based livelihoods.”

[1]The report broadly defines natural resource governance decentralization as the process and outcome of conferring some level of decision-making and responsibility to subnational institutions and jurisdictions. Resource federalism, a related concept, is defined as governance of natural resources within a federal political system that devolves power to the subnational level.